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BACKSTAGE : Clothes of Old : Mary Traynor outfits the cast of Ojai's Shakespeare Festival with hard work and a gift for improvisation.


Producers of Shakespeare's plays might economize by not having to pay royalties to the author, but whatever money they save is usually spent on elaborate, historical costumes. Then again, when faced with a relatively low budget, one is forced to improvise.

In the case of this year's Ojai Shakespeare Festival, which is presenting two plays at downtown Libbey Park starting Friday night, the person doing the improvising is Mary Traynor, costume designer.

"I try to stay out of the sewing end of costuming if I can," Traynor said as she brushed some color off her face. "Some people love to sew, and we definitely find them. But I'd rather be outside getting my hands covered in paint or chemicals, making felt look like steel armor."

Traynor's choice of the wardrobe for the weekend matinee entertainment, "Two Gentlemen of Verona," is a thrifty hodgepodge of late 20th-Century street clothing and traditional Renaissance costumes. But the festival's main presentation, "Henry IV, Part 1," is relying on Traynor's ability to make silk purses from sows' ears.

Well, almost.

One recent Sunday afternoon in the spacious back yard of an Ojai residence, cast members of "Henry" were running through their lines and rehearsing their swordplay. Over to one side, Traynor, 28, and a couple of teen-age interns, daubed with paint, sat at a table applying finishing touches to the coat of arms on a warrior's shield.

Making armor, too, is a challenge. The real thing, obviously, would be heavy and cumbersome, not to mention expensive.

"I start with quarter-inch (thick) felt and stiffen it with hat sizing, paint it with glue and water and sand it down to make it smooth," Traynor explains. "Then I'll add rope to the edges before painting it, to give it some interest."

Traynor, who lives with her husband and cat in Culver City, studied theater at Cal State Long Beach.

"I was a business major at first," she says, "and hated it--that was my father's idea. I entered the theater program after catching a glimpse of the costume shop, which really intrigued me. Acting never interested me."

During her years at Long Beach, Traynor spent a season at Stage One, a prominent children's theater group in Louisville, Ky.

"That's where I started getting interested in crafts. Jewelry, all that kind of stuff, really captures my interest and I like to use it in my shows."

This is Traynor's third year with the Ojai Shakespeare Festival. She began as a milliner and was promoted to costume designer for last year's production of "Macbeth."

"The group is definitely trying to grow," she says, "but they're also trying to keep the festival within the community. Last year we took a big jump in production values from the year before, and this year our budget has increased even more.

"I have really developed an appreciation for Shakespeare since I started working with this group. I enjoy being transported to another time."

Working with the group taxes Traynor's research skills as well as her imagination. In addition to what she learns from her own collection of books, she says, she spends considerable time at the public library.

"Particularly the Venice branch, which is small but has a lot of good books. And no one seems to go there to check them out."

" 'Henry IV, Part 1,' " Traynor notes, "is set in the 1400s. It's an interesting period, especially for men. There were scalloped edges on the sleeves and bottoms of garments, fur trim . . . they wore a lot of hats and hoods. The noblemen wore pointed-toed shoes and brightly colored garments. At the time, 'sumptuary' laws prohibited people from dressing above their station in society, so peasants couldn't wear shoes with as long points as the noblemen's. But as time passed, those colored clothes and pointed shoes became models for jesters' outfits."

Last year, her biggest challenge was making chain mail. She found fabric that had the right look and then painted over it. This year "we have some people making chain mail link by link, which we are attaching to the helmets."

Although the Ojai Shakespeare Festival pays Traynor for her expertise and labor, it's not her full-time job. She works in the operations office at Whittier College School of Law in Los Angeles.

"It's nice for me," she says, "because they pay me well for nine months, and then I can do what I like during the summer."

Eventually, Traynor aspires to work with the Santa Fe Opera's summer season or the year-round Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

"At Ashland, I hear, they've got 100 people in their costume shop alone."

A wistful expression crosses her face. Then, with much to be done, Traynor returns to her flock.


* "Henry IV, Part 1," 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday, Aug. 14 through 16 and 21 through 23 at Festival Bowl at Libbey Park in Ojai. Tickets: Fridays and Sundays, $12; Saturdays, $15. Seniors citizens and students: Fridays and Sundays, $10; Saturdays, $12. Children under 13 accompanied by an adult are admitted free. Group rates are available. For tickets or more information call 646-9455.

* "Two Gentlemen of Verona," 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Aug. 15, 16, 22 and 23 at Festival Bowl at Libbey Park in Ojai. Tickets are: $8; senior citizens and students $7. Children under 13 accompanied by and adult are admitted free. Group rates available. For tickets or more information call 646-9455.

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